Monday, October 24, 2011


Foie Gras for the Rest of Us.

A few years ago, I struggled with keeping foie gras in rotation on our menu.  No doubt about it, if you're a "serious" restaurant and you know what that means - you have to have foie gras on the menu.  By late 2000 I had studied Thomas Keller's French Laundry and practiced with my brigade the making of classic torchon de foie gras.  Oooh we were fancy with our Sauternes gelee, caramelized pineapple, rum raisin chutney, dried raspberries, hazelnut toffee, etc!  By the time our food cost began to catch up with our creative zeal we were stuck with several weeks and many hundreds of dollars worth of duck liver curing in the walk-in. The tied and bound liver filled cotton towels were a genuine nod to our hero, Thomas and the Old World.  It was hubris to behave this way - disrespectful to the duck to over-produce torchons like we did, but they were beautiful.  Unfortunately for all the beauty in the walk-in box, neither Chef Keller nor the ghost of August Escoffier were around to help us empty the larder. To the corporate chef and accountant, our art was a huge chunk of inventory dollars to behold and it had to go.  

In the restaurant, we served a 3 oz portion of foie gras for 17 dollars.  3 ounces is a lot of fat - given that foie gras is almost purely that, and $17 isn't a lot of money to give for that kind of portion in anyone's restaurant.  Even well adorned and at the nice-price of $17, I struggled to move more than a couple a night.  However determined I was to make it work for the menu, there was no mistaking that it went to the plate at a 43% food cost before accompaniments and shrink due to staff snacking and net loss due to yield. The ego cost vs. cache vs. movement vs. real food cost pointed sharply to dropping the most noble of innards.  

I knew that we couldn't afford to menu all the torchon that was curing in the box, but we also couldn't afford to sit on it as long as it would take to move it at an even higher menu price.  As I sat nibbling on some Mimoulette Francais one evening, I remarked at how by slicing thinly with a cheese plane, I could enjoy all the aromatics of the cheese without really consuming a lot of the product.  By making more surface area available in proportion to the mass I could maximize my flavor sensation by making more aromatic cheese surface available to my olfactory sense and minimize my cheese intake.  Reasoning that since your olfactory is nearly 75% of your sense of taste, "tasting with your nose" made perfect "sense".  

There was the "Aha!" moment.  Enter micro plane... enter stick blendor... enter foie gras as an ingredient for everyone.  And, enter foie gras as a profitable luxury.  Further still, foie gras on several dishes at once, not just flying solo.  I set to portioning the torchon into pucks that could be kept on the line in the ice cream freezer.  The torchon that had not cured fully, I reformed into "crayons" - thumb sized sticks that could be frozen and kept frozen - removed only long enough to manipulate for a dish then returned to the freezer.

Before service, several pucks were removed from the freezer and added to the saucier's mise en place.  He would use a stick blender to buzz a puck into sauce for duck breast.  A red currant duck demi glace went well over the edge when a foie puck was added - beautiful, frothy and mahogany red against pink Long Island duckling.  This sauce later  evolved into the sauce for the duck confit agnolotti and later rabbit. 

Again on the Garde Manger station, we would grate copious nests of aromatic and unctious duck liver into soups and even onto pasta.  David Chang of Momofuku cites that he and his crew use a similar technique to elevate their pork bun.  Diners attest that they have pushed the ethereal 

Todd Gray of Equinox once served me a very seasonally sensitive and inspiring cauliflour cream with fresh oysters.  I've tweaked that presentation and now frequently serve a a roux-less cauliflour soup made with minimal cream; the oyster is soaked in dry, white Sherry and foie gras is grated over the finish soup as it hits the pass.  The marks on this one have been very high.  Elevate sweet potato, butternut squash or the Sherried duck soup we've menued each fall.  It's a great hook to get foie on your menu.

And, in the spirit of the Italian trattoria, gloved waiters have presented fresh tagliatelle with walnuts, olio nuevo, Pecorino Romano, parsley and shaved-at-the-table foie gras from one of the "crayons".  There's no limit to what the guest may ask for as the foie fluffs  so when shredded, be generous.

As chefs, we want to get the most from every ingredient and we want to give as much as we can to each guests' experience.  We face a very tough dining economy and any advantage that we can achieve to set ourselves apart, to be more generous that the last guy, to give our guests just a bit more of a departure when they arrive in our dining rooms can make the difference between for-profit and non-profit status.  Add to that our beloved foie gras is on the ropes these days.  Don't forget that every time you serve foie, it's an opportunity to add to the legion of fans among the dining-voting populace.  

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